23 November 2022
The British Library has digitised and made available online the only known copy of Una Marson’s pioneering play ‘At What a Price’ (1932).
Una Maud Marson was born in Jamaica in 1905. Throughout her lifetime she would live and work in the Caribbean, the UK and the USA. An editor, poet, playwright, activist, writer and BBC producer, Marson had a versatile and prolific career. The phenomenal breadth and range of Una Marson’s creative and critical outputs are yet to be fully appreciated, but there has been a recent renewed interest in the contributions she made to the cultural landscape of the British Empire and North America. Una Marson was the subject of a BBC production, Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice, which brought to life her incredible career and creations. Many of those creations can be found here, in the British Library, including her poetry collections. However, some of her works are a little harder to find.
Through a recent project at the British Library, the Eccles Centre for American Studies has been supporting the research of Professor Kate Dossett and her project ‘Black Cultural Archives & the Making of Black Histories’. Part of this project involved examining the Lord Chamberlain’s Play’s (LCP) collection for plays produced in Britain written by Black playwrights. The LCP’s are the largest collection of manuscripts in the British Library. The collection consists of plays collected by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain from the years 1824 to 1968. They were collected because the censorship laws which existed at the time specified that plays had to be approved for a licence before a performance. This collection therefore provides an illuminating record of drama performed in the UK up to 1968. The research project has utilised this collection to find and promote the, often hidden, work of Black theatre makers in the early twentieth century.
One of the plays within the collection is Una Marson’s, ‘At What a Price’. Marson first wrote this play whilst living in Jamaica where it staged in 1932. The play was so successful that she used the profits to travel to London, England, where it was staged before British audiences. In London she got involved in anti-racist activism and became secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, which fought for racial equality in the UK. The league and its founder, Harold Moody, sponsored Marson’s London production of her play in 1933. Yet, despite its international popularity no copy of the play’s script is known to have survived beyond the one kept in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection.
The play follows Ruth Maitland, a young Jamaican woman who moves from the countryside to Kingston, Jamaica, to work as a stenographer where she is pursued by a white Englishman. The play examines women’s agency in love and work, as well as issues of interracial relations and sexual harassment. The unique play script that Una Marson and her production team sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office has now been digitised in its entirety and has been made accessible through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. Researchers can now view this play and the related reader’s report from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office which outlines the department’s response in terms of whether the play was suitable for licensing. These images are available to view here.
With the digitisation of this play and related Lord Chamberlain’s Office correspondence, we hope to preserve and widen access to Una Marson’s many and varied cultural outputs. With the digitisation of this play, and others created by black theatre makers, researchers and audiences can discover ways in which black playwrights across the British Empire and Americas were frequently creating new cultural narratives and were at the forefront of movements for change that were an integral part of the British theatrical landscape in the early 20th century.
Jessica Gregory, Project Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts
Digitisation funded by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.
02 November 2022
This blog celebrates the 30th anniversary of Desmond J. McTernan’s French Quebec: Imprints in French from Quebec, 1764–1990, in the British Library.
This wonderful catalogue was officially commissioned by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the spring of 1990 as Britain’s gift to Montreal for the 350th anniversary of the foundation of that city, due to be celebrated in 1992.1
As McTernan explains, the British Museum Library had begun collecting French language materials from Quebec in the 1830s and this has been continuously sustained since the late 1860s. Besides this continuity of acquisition, the British Library’s collection has also benefited both from the law of colonial copyright deposit which between 1895–1923 brought in many publications which would not otherwise have been obtained (described in a recent blog post), and from the very extensive programme of donations of new Quebec monographs by the Délégation générale du Québec in Paris from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. McTernan’s catalogue therefore charts the evolution of French Quebec’s literary, artistic, social and political culture through material collected for nearly 160 years by the national library of a country that has shared a privileged relationship with both Quebec and Canada throughout that period.
In his rich and detailed Introduction, McTernan notes that Quebec City’s first printing business – Brown and Gilmore – opened in 1764. Twelve years later, the Frenchman Fleury Mesplet (Fig. 1, below) introduced the printing press to Montreal. Yet for the next five or six decades, their output was essentially restricted to government proclamations and notices, catechisms, teaching primers and almanacs, and it would not be until the late nineteenth century that Quebec's home-grown publications truly began to challenge the dominance of foreign imports.
This transition from mere printing to publishing, began, albeit tentatively, in the 1830s – a period of great political and cultural confrontation in Quebec, during which it became increasingly clear to the Francophone population that books printed in France could not articulate their specific cultural identity, nor the threat under which they felt it to be. It was at this time that Quebec itself – its history, society and literature – became the subject matter for local printers, thus beginning the tradition of Canadian scholarly writing and printing in defense of French Canada and its history.
As for how works from Quebec reached the British Museum Library, McTernan notes that the first major supplier of Canadian imprints was the well-known, mainly antiquarian bookdealer, T. Rodd of 12 Great Newport Street. An early invoice from Rodd, dated 8 December 1840, lists 42 titles from Lower Canada, 12 of which were in French. The majority of these were either printed or commissioned by government or corporate bodies, and focused in one way or another on aspects of local or North American government, law, politics and society. But the list also includes two of the earliest French-Canadian scholarly monographs: Amury Girod’s Notes diverse sur le Bas-Canada (1835) and G.B. Faribault’s Catalogue d’ouvrages sur l’histoire de l’Amérique et en particulier sur celle du Canada... (1837).2
Yet no regular commercial network for the export of Canadian books existed before the 1870s; partly because there were simply too few publications to make this worthwhile. As McTernan explains, the large-scale existence and widespread availability of books in any society depends on several factors, not least of which are a reasonably literate population and a good communication and transportation network. In 1840, neither of these existed in French Canada. However, the 1840s saw a series of Education Acts, the full impact of which was felt by the 1870s. And after Confederation in 1867, the construction of the railroad network – which had begun in the 1840s–50s – not only vastly expanded, but also geared itself towards the transport of passengers.
After exploring the impact of various copyright Acts – both ‘Imperial’ and colonial – upon the Library’s receipt of works published in Canada, McTernan ends by exploring the acquisition of material post-1930. Between 1930-1960, there was not only a diminution in the funds available for the purchase of materials from French Quebec, but also the need to repurchase works that had been destroyed by bomb damage in World War II rather than buy new works. Happily, however, 1960-1990 was a period of expansion and development. Indeed, the 1960s–70s was ‘a time of plenty’ for the Library as a whole, but the previously mentioned donation from the Délégation du Québec from 1964–1981 also added to the Library’s stock at least one third of the imprints that it holds for those years, and the money freed up by these donations enabled a wide-ranging purchase of older material.
By 1990, the Library’s collection of imprints in French from Quebec comprised around 11,000 titles, making it one of the largest such collections outside of Quebec itself. This magnificent collection continues to grow to this day.
Desmond J. McTernan, French Quebec: Imprints in French from Quebec, 1764-1990, in the British Library. London: The British Library; Montreal: Bibliothèque national du Québec, 1992-93. British Library shelfmark: Open Access Humanities 1 Reading Room: HLR 011.241; General Reference Collection 2719.k.1330.
Amury Girod, Notes diverse sur le Bas-Canada. Village Debartzch: J. P. Boucher-Belleville,1835. British Library shelfmark: 798.g.13; G.B. Faribault, Catalogue d’ouvrages sur l’histoire de l’Amérique et en particulier sur celle du Canada... Québec, 1837. British Library shelfmark: Cup.403.t.10.
19 October 2022
Suelin Low Chew Tung is an artist and writer and is based in Grenada; she was a 2020 British Library Eccles Visiting Fellow.
My days as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library, from July to August 2022, were happily spent pouring over maps, ledgers, bound letters, loose papers, and other documents related to Grenada, an island (and the name of the State of Grenada) located at 12°07’N 61°40’W.
Grenada is part of an archipelago variously known as the Caribes Islands, Lesser Antilles, West India Islands, and Windward Islands, within a space called the West Indies or the Caribbean. My project is to list changes in names during the French and British colonial ownership of this small island nation and overlay them on a contemporary map. I will then have a better idea of where was called what, why, and if any of the original colonial names survived as the physical landscape both changed and changed hands.
I spent most of my time in the Maps Reading Room reviewing single maps, duplicate maps, maps on paper and fabric, both coloured and black and white, in books and boxes. I came across maps referring to Grenada as l’isle de la Grenade (British Library shelfmark: Maps 147.e.8.); las Islas Granada (Maps D.DE.H.SEC.9.(506.)); island of Granada (Maps 82410.(2.)); and l’Isola di Granata (Maps C.24.f.10.). No wonder there is confusion as to the correct pronunciation.
After the British gained control of the island from the French in 1763, however, the name changed from la Grenade to Grenada.1 So, it’s Gre-nay-dah, not Gra-naah-da. That’s in Spain.
I was determined to find all documents relating to Grenada in the British Library’s catalogue. The staff in Maps, Rare Books, Manuscripts, Asia & Africa and the Newsroom were accommodating, and I was grateful for their input. Regarding the former, the Library contains one of the best map collections on Grenada. Representations on early maps in Jomard’s collection and the Blathwayt Atlas, showed the island as a blob, a cross, a backwards L, and even a crab’s claw.2 I saw the island’s shape evolve from a smudge to the elegant outline we are accustomed to seeing on Google Earth—a green mango set against blue sea. Unfolding each map opened new ideas for artwork, and suddenly Grenada was not just a speck on the world map but a place that vibrated throughout history.
I was beyond thrilled.
Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard, contains several maps showing Grenada:
• Map XIX. 1: Mappemonde peintre sur parchemin par order de Henri II, roi de France, is a 1542 map which shows an unnamed Grenada hanging off the edge of the image.
• Map XX.1: Mappemonde de Sébastien Cabot, pilote-major de Charles-Quint, de la première moitié du xvie siècle. On this 1544 map, the shark tooth-shaped island is called la Granada. It is connected to I. vicente (St. Vincent) by two strands of unnamed islands; the effect is of a necklace, a Kalinago caracoli.
• Map XVI: Mappemonde de Jean de la Cosa, pilote de Christophe Colomb, fin du xve siècle. On this map, Grenada is called Mayo.
According to J.A. Martin (2013), de La Cosa’s map showing Grenada took information from Vincente Yañez Pinzón’s map of his exploration of the Americas in 1499-1500.3 Though Christopher Columbus is credited with ‘discovering’ and naming Grenada as Conception, Pinzón apparently visited Grenada on 1 May 1500 at what is now St. George’s Harbour. Map XVI shows Grenada as a blue cashew nut shape, identified as Mayo. Pinzón’s landfall is listed as “poyna” a corruption of Puerto de la Reyna, meaning Port of the Queen (Isabella).
In the Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.), John Sellers’ Chart of the Caribe Islands (p. 25) enlarges that backwards L so the island shape is recognisable as a smaller version of modern-day Trinidad. On the 1656 map by Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville and George duRoy, Les Isles Antilles (p. 26), Granada is a crab’s claw at the end of a shattered arm of granular rocks they called Granadilla. John Sellers’ The Island of Tobago (p. 29), includes a Chart of the Carriby Islands where the Granada claw is less pronounced, and the smaller rocks are called Granadillos. The Venezuela cum parte Australi Novae Andalusiae (p. 37), is a map of Venezuela showing the Caribbean archipelago. On this, Granada looks more like an opened nutmeg, eerily similar to the one on our national flag.
My visit with the Library's Philatelic team was also an absolute pleasure. I got a good introduction to how stamps are made, the Grenada stamps in the Tapling Collection, and Grenada stamps in general. As they explained: stamps hold a mirror to history. Indeed, these vignettes of our island’s story will inspire a series of artworks on the currency of stamps, given that fewer people are using stamps as postage.
Apart from creating a series of artworks inspired by the British Library’s collections, my main intention is to render a single map of Grenada place names. This will connect old place names with new, identify places which no longer exist and new spaces which fill that void. I hope to start conversations on shifting landscapes and narratives of Grenada’s past, and heritage education/appreciation/conservation policy.
This was my fifth visit to the British Library since 2011, but the first on a fellowship. The Eccles Visiting Fellowship provided opportunity and funding for research at the British Library, a safe space to dream, to learn and be inspired. I needed at least another month.
- Martin, J. A. (2022). A~ Z of Grenada Heritage. New and Revised. Gully Press, Brooklyn, USA.
- Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard (British Library shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa X 11); Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.).
- Martin, J.A. (2013). Island Caribs and French Settlers in Grenada, 1498-1763. Grenada National Museum Press. Kindle Edition.
05 October 2022
Dr. Tatiani Rapatzikou is Associate Professor in the Department of American Literature and Culture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and was a 2020 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
My visit to the British Library in April and August 2022 was fully dedicated to the exploration of diverse primary and secondary sources that fall under the theme of book design, materiality, and storytelling in the context of print and digital American literary practice.
With the Library having in its holdings an array of uniquely made books by contemporary US-based print makers, I felt that I had only scraped the tip of the iceberg.
While searching for my own project, I came across and I was tempted to explore a number of paper-made gems that fueled my curiosity and whetted my appetite for this area of American literary, as well as publishing, experience. The first example I’d like to share is the Loujon Press 1966 volume titled Order and Chaos Chez Reichel by Henry Miller (see Fig. 1) that I had been reading about but had never seen.
Made out of a range of materials such as coloured paper, cork and tissue-lace paper, and coming in a decorated cardboard slipcase, this is a unique codex creation. This special volume contains, in addition to Miller’s own text, an introduction contributed by Lawrence Durrell, one of his close friends, written in red ink on light blue and beige-coloured paper. In the opening paragraph of the introduction, Durrell writes: “This little book is, if my memory serves me right, only one of several which Miller completed around this time (1937-38) and gave to his friends as personal gifts” (7). This particular book creation was dedicated to Miller’s painter friend, Hans Reichel, whom he met during his Paris days in the late 1930s. Building on Miller’s initially handwritten book-letter to Reichel on printer’s dummies, Jon and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb, the founders of the New Orleans-based Loujon Press, published Miller’s Order and Chaos in six limited editions, each one resorting to different materials and bindings.
The specific book mentioned here serves as a memento of a special friendship. Ιt is the tactile and visual as well as colour quality of the materials used (paper, cork, tissue, ink) that transfer to the readers Miller’s diverse thoughts and feelings for his painter friend.
The second example, I’d like to point at is the limited edition of a broadside poem project (see Fig. 2), which started in 1982 with Alastair Reed and continued in 1984 with Dana Gioia, aiming to bring together a diverse range of poems by American poets residing in fourteen different US states. Amidst the poets who participated in this special endeavor were: May Swenson, W.S. Merwin, Jay Parini, Judith Hemschemeyer, Amy Clampitt and others. This project was completed in collaboration with James Trissel, who was the designer and printer of the letterpress and book arts studio known as The Press at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In the booklet accompanying the broadside poem creations, Gioia writes in her “Introduction”: “Printed on one side of a single sheet of paper, a poetry broadside is the most intense and unified genre of printing. […] While a book may have hundreds of pages to create its effect, a broadside has only one forceful gesture to satisfy simultaneously the requirements of both literature and design.” While in “The Printer’s Comment,” contained in the same booklet, Trissel notes: “These twenty four broadsides […] represent the opportunity to deal with poetry in an expansive range of typographic situations” by resorting to special paper materials and an array of printing techniques. He also points out that, “Unlike the book, the broadside tries within a single plane to strike a resonance between the poetic text and its visual circumstance.” These two comments offer an insight into the crucial role materials, typographic design and printing can play in the delivery not only of an aesthetic effect but also of a multilayered and synthesizing experience.
It was thanks to the Eccles Centre's US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings, which is available both on the Centre's website and in the British Library's Shared Research Repository, that I was able to systematize and expand my research as well as broaden my knowledge about American specialist presses and their print-based projects.
What is certain is that materials enhance the experience of writing, since they strive not merely for a conceptual, but also a bodily and even gestural engagement with the texts composed and the narratives brought forward. Each one of the examples presented here sheds light on a different way of printing and manifestation of creativity. These kinds of material creations both bring to our attention an alternative artistic and literary activity that values craftsmanship and collaboration between the print-maker and the writer or the poet, while also personalizing the overall experience and establishing a meaningful connection with the readers on the basis of the materials and printing method chosen.
In a reality governed by mass production and commercialization, material design and book-making invite us to reevaluate literary practice. This has become even more pertinent since the turn of the 21st century due to the ubiquity of digital technologies. It is not accidental that in the context of current scholarship on American literary production there is a resurgence of interest in digitally-assisted book design and materials, with “bookishness” being the term that is now used in order to mark this kind of turn. Jessica Pressman interprets bookishness as a “creative movement invested in exploring and demonstrating love for the book as symbol, art form, and artifact” (1), which increases in intensity as our every day actions also demand an increased engagement with digital technologies.
Considering this observation in tandem with the examples shared in this short blog, one can realise that materials, even though overlooked at times, play a decisive role in enhancing the literary experience by multiplying the opportunities readers have for imaginative exploration and immersion into the story told.
Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.
Jessica Pressman, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. British Library pressmark: YC.2022.a.2100.
Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Col.: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.
26 September 2022
Patrick J. Jung is a professor in the Department of Humanities, Social Science and Communication at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, I had the honour of spending five weeks at the British Library engaged with the Haldimand Papers during the summer of 2022. This sizeable collection presented a daunting task as it consists of 249 volumes, many of which contain hundreds of original manuscripts. Nevertheless, it was time well spent with one of the most important manuscript collections for understanding the history of the British Empire in North America.
Frederick Haldimand was a Swiss-born British army officer who arrived in North America in 1756 during the opening years of the French and Indian War. Except for a hiatus in Britain from 1775 to 1778, Haldimand remained in North America until 1784. In addition to serving as the military commander of East and West Florida from 1765 to 1773, he served as the commander of Quebec from 1778 to 1784 and was responsible for the colony’s military defense, particularly during the American Revolution. Haldimand also commanded British installations in the Great Lakes region. His papers often provide the only record of the events that transpired in this vast expanse, which included posts in the eastern Great Lakes such as Fort Niagara (Fig. 1) and Fort Detroit (Fig. 2), and the sole installation in the western Great Lakes, Fort Michilimackinac.
Originally, I planned to focus on those documents related to the American Revolution in the Trans-Appalachian West, but in the course of my research, I noticed a distinct contrast between the British officer class serving in North America and the American colonials concerning their attitudes toward Native societies. Whereas colonials sought to expand their settlements westward beyond the Appalachian Mountains at the expense of the Indigenous societies, British army officers strove to preserve Native lands for Native people. The reasons for this sentiment shifted over time, but it was a surprisingly consistent policy goal from the 1750s onward. The Haldimand Papers proved to be an essential resource for investigating this ideological divide as they span three crucial decades and preserve a record of British imperialism in North America that is unparalleled in scope.
During the 1750s and 1760s, British officers endeavoured to prevent American colonials from settling on the Native lands of the Trans-Appalachian West to mollify the Indigenous societies and prevent uprisings such as that of Pontiac’s Rebellion from 1763 to 1766. In the aftermath of this insurrection, British military administrators reestablished the earlier system of trade instituted by the French that extended political, economic, and cultural autonomy to Native people. The advent of the American Revolution witnessed both the British and their Native allies working toward the common goal of defeating the American colonials and pushing the tide of White expansion eastward back across the Appalachian Mountains. When the Treaty of Paris ended the conflict in 1783, Haldimand gave this policy a more structured form when he proposed establishing a Native barrier state north of the Ohio River as a means of preserving the land base of Britain’s Indigenous allies. In a letter dated 27 November 1783, Haldimand advised that “the intermediate country between the limits assigned to Canada by the provisional treaty…should be considered entirely as belonging to the Indians, and that the subjects neither of Great Britain nor of the American States should be allowed to settle within them” (Haldimand Papers, Add. Mss. vol. 21716/73-75). The idea of a North American Native barrier state remained a British objective for the next three decades.
The Haldimand Papers make clear that American colonials exhibited what Patrick Wolfe (2006) has labeled “settler colonialism,” or the “logic of elimination” (387-388) whereby they sought to eliminate Indigenous peoples from their homelands. Through the voluminous correspondence preserved in the Haldimand Papers, the patient researcher can discern the development of British policies designed to counter American settler colonialism and preserve Native autonomy during the latter half of the eighteenth century. British policymakers ultimately failed to achieve this policy goal, and thus, it remains a neglected aspect of British imperial history. As I continued my examination of the Haldimand Papers, I became determined to correct this historiographic oversight in the future.
In his synthesis of the history of the British Empire, Bernard Peters (2004) asserts that British military commanders on the ground and imperial authorities in London often found it necessary to “protect…indigenous subjects from maverick Britons” (6). Certainly, this was the case in British North America from the 1750s onward. Historians researching this phenomenon will find the Haldimand Papers an essential source of historical information.
Anderson, Fred. (2000). Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Vintage Books.
Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. (1969). “Barrier to Settlement: British Indian Policy in the Old Northwest 1783-1794.” In The Frontier in American Development: Essays in Honor of Paul Wallace Gates. Pp. 249-276. David Ellis, ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Dendy, John O. (1972). “Frederick Haldimand and the Defense of Canada, 1778-1784.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University.
Haldimand, Frederick. Papers. (1750-1790). Additional Manuscripts, vols. 21661-21895. British Library.
Porter, Bernard. (2004). The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-2004. Fourth edition. Harlow, United Kingdom: Pearson.
Sutherland, Stuart, Pierre Tousignant, and Madeleine Dionne-Tousignant. (1983). “Haldimand, Sir Frederick,” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 5, pp 887-904. Francess Halpenny, ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.
Wolfe, Patrick. (2006). “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8:387–409.
25 August 2022
Stephanie Narrow is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine, and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
NB: This article contains an historical image and descriptions relating to slavery and indentured servitude which readers may find upsetting.
Beyond a shared language and general oceanic orientation, 19th-century California and Britain's Pacific colonies don’t appear to have much in common at first glance. And true, they differed greatly in terms of government organization, class structure, and the proper way to spell “pajamas” (or is it “pyjamas?”)
But when we factor in issues like 19th-century immigration, land rights, diplomacy, and the circulation of print media between these regions, we encounter more similarities than differences. And, indeed, these very issues echo into the 21st century. Exploring the historical entanglements between the American empire in California and Britain’s Pacific Empire better equips us in the present day to address issues of xenophobia, access to natural resources, and ongoing demands for decolonization.
It was my drive to better understand the evolution of these issues that brought me some 5,437 miles (or 8,750 kilometers? See, those pesky cultural differences arise again!) from California to the British Library in London. Through the generous support of a Visiting Fellowship from the Eccles Centre for American Studies, I came eager to research the entangled histories of the British and American empires during the height of the Pacific gold rushes in the 1850s. In particular, I wanted to explore how gold rushes impacted both Chinese immigration and Indigenous land dispossession; and how, or if, these empires shaped their own modes of imperial governance around each other. Was California looking to British colonies in Hong Kong, Australia, India, and British Columbia to shape their own policies about Chinese immigration, trade, resource extraction, and Native genocide? Or vice versa?
To help answer these questions, I turned to the papers of Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon—an aristocrat and lifelong politician who served as the Foreign Secretary during much of this period. As Foreign Secretary, he was the head of diplomatic relations with foreign countries and was the person to whom the British Consulate in San Francisco, California, reported. I was convinced that his papers held the answers I was searching for.
As I was perusing the thick folios of his correspondence, I greedily anticipated that “eureka!” moment (gold rush pun intended) that would clearly, decisively, and unequivocally support my hypothesis. And certainly, I found much material that helped me reconstruct global diplomatic relations in this period. I did, however, come across something rather unexpected.
Here I beg for an indulgent pause and reflection on “the historical profession.” As historians, our job is to go into archives, research, and from that research tell stories that both illuminate our past and (hopefully) shed light on our present moment. We’re taught to be objective, logical. From the outside, it seems a rather neat and tidy experiment (though in reality it never is.) But nowhere in my nearly decade of graduate school training was I ever taught what to do when you find something that so wholly disturbs the peace and tranquility of the reading room.
So, one very normal morning, I turned the page of one of Carnarvon’s many folios and came across a report. It included tables of ships’ cargoes, routes, and destinations. But the following note on one table sent chills across my body:
“Many of the Chinese jumped overboard.”
This was a line in a ledger documenting the suicide of Chinese labourers aboard British sailing vessels who were sent, many through force or coercion, to Cuba in the 1850s. This “coolie trade” began in the 1840s and consisted mostly of men from China and South Asia. These labourers were often kidnapped or duped by British agents (as well as French, American, Spanish…) into so-called indentured servitude in the Caribbean, a very colonial labour solution to the end of the African slave trade.
And I sat as tears welled up and spilt over, soaking into my face mask. I couldn’t shake those six words that, for most, are probably the only earthly record remaining of their lives: “Many of the Chinese jumped overboard.” Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the furtive glances of one archivist, certainly equally parts confused about my emotional state and concerned that my tears might land on these priceless papers. I struggled to regain my composure, thinking about the hundreds of people who sooner sought what dignity they could in choosing a death at sea, far from home, than suffer under slavery and labouring on plantations in the Caribbean. It reminded me of the stories of the Middle Passage—of the horrific conditions that enslaved Africans faced upon their forced migration across the Atlantic. Many of them, too, sought solace in the sea.
At first I felt self-conscious and ashamed of my reaction. As professionals we are expected to train the emotion out of ourselves—especially us women—in order to be taken seriously. But then I realized there is strength in emotion, and the “ideal” of the unfeeling scholar is an affront to the humanity we so often claim to seek. Empathy is empowering, and I fervently encourage any reading this to embrace emotion, for it’s a universal tool that allows us to connect to other humans, past and present. After all, aren’t historians conduits between the living and the dead?
10 August 2022
Kathryn Sampeck is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University and was the 2021-22 British Library Eccles Centre Fulbright Scholar.
I arrived in London with all kinds of baggage—not only clothes, personal items, and tech to see me through six months of my UK Fulbright at the Eccles Centre, but also expectations about what I would find in the archives. My project investigates the relationships of race and food. I am interested in a notable case: chocolate and vanilla. I knew from previous research that these two substances had a long history of being paired (chocolate and vanilla “go together”) yet also semantic and culinary opposites (a difference of black and white; one cannot substitute for the other). One version of the semantic contrast of the two is as racial metaphors. For example, a 1974 article in Jet magazine describes how entertainer Connie Stevens “began her act with two Black dancers and two white dancers by saying that she has two daughters at home—‘one Chocolate and one Vanilla.’”
I knew from previous research that the association of chocolate with a dark colour, pejorative qualities such as sinfulness, and racial blackness occurred as early as the seventeenth century; the evidence was less clear about vanilla’s linkage with the colour white, purity, a bland taste, and racial whiteness. I assumed that I had not looked in the right places. Surely the British Library’s mountain of rare chronicles and medical and culinary books and manuscripts would fill in the gaps about when and how vanilla got its reputation. I thought vanilla would be there, perhaps a bit everywhere, and I had overlooked it because I was focusing on chocolate. My months in the archive and in British grocery stores and restaurants showed me how wrong I was! I now understand that I had an American bias about vanilla. My American bias is that vanilla is the go-to flavour for almost anything, and I assumed that such vanilla use had its roots in British cookery and medical practice. My deep dive into the British Library holdings showed this to be untrue. It is not until the nineteenth century that, as Mrs. Beeton claimed, vanilla was “in daily use for ices, chocolates, and flavouring confectionary generally.”
I wanted to know more about how vanilla fit in with other American ingestibles, so I cast my net broadly, looking for mentions in diverse kinds of documents of any American plants or foods. What I found surprised me, even after years of chocolate-focused research. More common than chocolate were turkey and potatoes, with the latter a regular entry in Queen Anne of Denmark's Household Book (Harley MS 157) from 1613.
A close second was sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a tree native to eastern North America, showing up in botanical, medical, and culinary works by people including James Petiver, Apothecary to the Charter-House (“Virtues of herbs”, Sloane MS 2346), a multi-authored 1619-1674 note-book of medical and culinary recipes (Add MS 36308), Mary Glover’s 1688 cookery and medical receipts (Add MS 57944), and most prominently, in Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix’s 1744 history and description of New France. Much less common—yet still more common than vanilla—was cochineal, a tiny parasitic insect (Dactylopius coccus) native to the tropical and subtropical Americas that feeds on prickly pear cacti (genus Opuntia). The dried, ground bodies of these insects yield the brilliant red, durable natural dye carmine, which certainly gave a rosy tint to those seventeenth-century concoctions.
The works that noted sassafras, cochineal, and other American substances often also included of cocoa or chocolate, such as the seventeenth-century Medicamenta usitatiora by George Bate, MD (Sloane MS 519). Cocoa or chocolate often occurred on its own (with sugar, water, milk, or cream); the most common additional flavour to chocolate was vanilla, a pairing that various sources from the earliest mentions to well into the nineteenth century claimed improved the taste of chocolate (and made it cost more!).
Culinary and medical recipes “white” or “clear” foods were abundant and had flavourings such as ambergris, sugar, mace, and cinnamon, but no vanilla.
Why didn’t one of these substances pegged as white become the contrast to chocolate? I found one clue in the seventeenth-century Observations on the preparation and virtues of Chocolate (Sloane MS 1471). After discussing the medical and sensorial qualities of “Bainilla”, the author goes on to describe that “All those Ingredients are usually put into the Chocolatte…But the meaner sort of people, as blackmors, and Indians commonly put nothing into it, but Cacao, Achiotte, Maiz, and a few Chiley with a little Anny seeds.” Chocolate consumption in itself did not distinguish race and class, but the subtleties that people added to it drew a sharp distinction between people of colour and (by implication, white) people of taste. The “Account of the inhabitants of Cathagena from Ulloa’s Voyage to South-America” in the New York Magazine; or A Literary Repository for July, 1792 echoes a similar complaint that chocolate (there known as cacao) was so common that an enslaved Black person “constantly allows himself a regale of it after breakfast” and Black women “sell it ready made about the streets”; their habit was to consume cacao with wheat bread. So, chocolate was cheap, easily available, and a significant part of the diet of Afro-Latin Americans, but the authors complain—and thereby distinguish their tastes from these South American Blacks—that it was not good (i.e. pure) chocolate: “This is however so far from being all cacao, that the principal ingredient is maize.”
The implication of these and other complaints is that in the hands of people of colour, chocolate did not realise its full potential for flavour. Furthermore, not just any flavour would enhance chocolate—vanilla was a key to good taste, worth paying more for. This brings me to the discovery that surprised me the most: vanilla became increasingly associated with the colour white in foods or medicines after it was associated with racial whiteness. Vanilla and chocolate history give a remarkable view into the depth of the history of the construction of racial disparities; colour did not precede colourizing.
08 August 2022
The Eccles Centre recently hosted a one-day symposium on Black Women’s Activism in the Americas, in collaboration with the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW). The day included a Show and Tell for the delegates, inspired by some of the topics under discussion. Here are some highlights from the display.
A few years ago the Library acquired a number of issues of Spotlight magazine. Produced by American Youth for Democracy during World War Two (formerly the Young Communist League), it was edited by Claudia Jones, the Trinidad and Tobago-born journalist and activist who emigrated to the US as a child.
Following the persecution of Communists by the US Government, Jones was deported to Britain in 1955. She continued her Communist activism in the UK and went on to found Britain’s first major black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in 1958, and played a major role in founding the Notting Hill Carnival. You can read more about Jones’ life and work in the British Library’s Windrush Stories online exhibition here. As with many histories of activism by women of colour, Jones’ legacy was maintained for many years by community activists and historians, through works such as Claudia Jones, 1915-1964: A Woman of Our Times [researched and compiled by Jennifer Tyson], published by Camden Black Sisters Publications in c1988.
Later US Communist activist and scholar Angela Davis was also represented with the Show and Tell including a number of works produced around her imprisonment in 1971 on murder and kidnapping charges. The case generated interest around the world and the display included items published in the UK and Germany demonstrating solidarity with her case, as well as a booklet produced by the United States Information Service and distributed by the US Embassy in London which endeavoured to present the ‘legal background’ to the case.
Alongside Official Government Publications, such as the USIS booklet shown above, another type of collection item which may be less familiar to British Library researchers are examples of political ephemera. The Library continues to acquire a range of this type of material including this striking broadside “I Am A Black Woman Communist”, featuring a portrait of Angela Davis, which was produced for the 20th Convention of the Communist Party USA in New York in February 1972. The following quote is printed beneath her portrait: "I am a black woman Communist / the corrupt government of this country could not accept such a combination / this is why they launch an effort to murder me." The artist's signature, identified only as ‘Sherman,’ is printed at upper right corner.
The political ephemera continued with election pamphlets produced by the Worker’s Party (PT, Partido dos Trabalhadores) during Brazilian federal elections in 1982. Included amongst those standing for office was Lélia Gonzalez, the leading Afro-Brazilian feminist, intellectual, politician, professor, anthropologist and Black and women’s rights activist. Her influential concept of Amefricanidade or ‘Amefricanity’ references both the black diaspora and indigenous populations of the Americas, signalling their histories of resistance as colonised peoples. Among a long career in activism and education, she ran as a federal candidate for the Worker’s Party in 1982. The broader context of the PT slate of candidates (included at the same shelfmark) provide fascinating insights in to the range of social justice concerns active in Brazilian politics in the early 1980s, including gay rights.
An underused part of the Library’s holdings, the Philatelic Collections offer a fascinating way into many different aspects of social and political histories. The Show and Tell was enriched by items from our Philatelic colleagues which illustrated the way black women’s activism has been commemorated on stamps, in turn helping to construct national and international conversations about women’s history and achievements. To find out more about Philately at the British Library, visit their subject page or their social media channels.
By Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre, August 2022 (with thanks to my Eccles and Americas colleagues for their help developing and mounting the Show and Tell)
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